In recent seasons League One has sometimes had the look of a graveyard for some of the big, historic names of English football, with Leeds, Manchester City, both Sheffield Wednesday and United, Nottingham Forest and Southampton just a few of the clubs who have found themselves playing at the less glamourous end of English football.
There are Charlton Athletic, Bradford City, Portsmouth, Oldham Athletic and Wigan Athletic in the division this year, all having previously been in the Premier League, but the biggest name is probably Blackburn Rovers who were champions in 1995.
The length of time if took Sheffield United to get out of the league before promotion last season shows what a tough league this can be, and whilst it doesn’t look quite as strong as last season, I expect it to still be tough and struggle to see any team really running away with it.
Challenging for Promotion:
Blackburn Rovers: A car crash of a club under the Venky’s, Rovers have sunk to their lowest level for some time. Tony Mowbray had a promising future as a manager but has stalled in recent years, which is probably why he finds himself at Blackburn. They have made big changes to the squad with 14 players leaving and 9 coming in, with some money spent, so they’ll need things to gel quickly to have a chance of challenging for promotion. They’ll be one of the biggest clubs in this division but it will be tough to change trajectory having been in a downward spiral for so long.
Bradford City: Bradford looked strong all season before losing out in the play-off final to Millwall. The Bantams will be strong at home as usual but need to convert some of last season’s home draws into wins (W11, D12, L0). The league doesn’t look to have the strength of the top two of last season this year, so they should have a chance of pushing on for automatic promotion with a squad that is arguably stronger than last season.
Doncaster Rovers: A late season blip cost them the League Two title but they were the best side in the division for a long period. It’s happened with other clubs before, so if they can continue their upward trajectory they could challenge for play-offs this season. They’ve not made many changes to the squad so far but that shouldn’t be a worry with the quality they had last year, with John Marquis prolific in League Two. A top half finish should be well within reach.
MK Dons: The long Karl Robinson reign came to an end last season as he was unable to stop the downward spiral following relegation from The Championship. Robbie Nelson came in having performed well at Hearts and managed to change fortunes after a settling in period. They’ll have a decent budget for this level and have made a number of changes to the squad, so if they can build on the progress of the end of last season they could challenge for the play-offs.
Wigan Athletic: Immediately relegated back to League One after just one season and the approach seemed to be shambolic with two managers sacked during the season. Paul Cook has come in as manager following his title win at Portsmouth and if given time could be a very shrewd appointment. Ten players have departed since the end of last season but they don’t look particularly weaker as only Stephen Warnock and Lewis Buxton were regulars in the first team. Omar Bogle was signed from Grimsby in January with high hopes after his prolific record in lower divisions and he can now push on after settling. With Bogle and Will Grigg up-front, Wigan should be able to outscore most opposition and will be a force in this division.
Pushing for The Play-Offs
Bristol Rovers: They had a brilliant first season back in League One after successive promotions and will be looking for further consolidation in an effort to establish themselves at this level. They would probably settle for a top-ten finish again, but with the look of a progressive club with a good young manager in charge it wouldn’t surprise if they could sneak into the play-offs.
Charlton Athletic: Another poorly run club who have found themselves in League One; last season was a disappointment but ended with Karl Robinson as manager, who was one of the bright young things until recently. Robinson’s reputation has taken a bit of a hit of late but he knows this level well and can’t have turned into a bad manager in such a short space of time. Much will depend on future transfer business and how much control the manager actually has but they should be aiming for the play-offs.
Fleetwood Town: Some might not like the fact they have spent money to reach this level, but Fleetwood seem to be a well-run club with steady foundations that more clubs should follow. Uwe Rosler took them to another level last season and much this season will depend on if they can keep him. They finished in the top 4 last season, have strengthened by signing a number of young players and in arguably a weaker league should challenge for top six.
Oxford United: A good season back in League One was followed by the surprise departure of manager Michael Appleton. Pep Clotet, who previously worked at Swansea and Leeds with Garry Monk, was appointed manager and has made slight changes to the squad with some experienced names coming in. With an unknown manager it’s hard to say how well they will do as it could easily turn into a disaster, but they look stronger in a weaker division than last year, so could push to improve on last year’s 8th place finish.
Portsmouth: Finally played themselves out of League Two and were even surprise champions after a big swing in results in the title run-in. Manager Paul Cook has departed and been replaced by Kenny Jackett, who has previously done well at this level. Pompey have seen big changes behind the scenes with a takeover and will be looking to push-on again to climb further back up the leagues. They have only made a few signings so far, with Brett Pitman looking like sound business given his goal-scoring record and experience, and though they could make further signings before the season starts they don’t look strong enough to challenge for promotion yet.
Southend United: Just missed out on the play-offs last season, finishing in seventh position, but have made steady progress under Phil Brown and will looking to go one step further this season. They haven’t made any major changes to the squad, though Michael Kightly could be a very good signing, and with Simon Cox top-scoring last season with 16, it might be the case that they are a prolific striker short of pushing on. Saying that, they did share the goals around last season in netting 70 over the season, but they just look to lack a little in the squad to make a play-off position secure.
Mid Table to Bottom Half:
AFC Wimbledon: A good debut season in League One, they tailed off towards the end of season but the vast majority of supporters would have taken the season they had last summer. They will now be looking to build on that and secure a stable position in the division ahead of the return to a stadium in Wimbledon. Transfer business looks sound this summer with solid signings for this level, like Liam Trotter and Cody McDonald, should keep them safe. Top-ten at a push.
Northampton Town: Finished 16th last season, struggling for long periods and only moving out of trouble late on. Justin Edinburgh came in as manager part way through the season, and having done a decent job at Gillingham looked a solid appointment. Thirteen players have come in during the close season and eight departed so far, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they made a slow start to the season. They should be safe this season but will struggle to push higher than mid-table.
Peterborough United: Mid-table mediocrity last season seems about right for a club like Peterborough, who have occasionally punched above their weight. Using a model much used by The Posh of plucking unpolished gems from lower leagues, they have signed two strikers who scored plenty in the non-league, in Danny Lloyd (Stockport County) and Ricky Miller (Dover Athletic). If things click, the unproven strikers can start scoring and they can push on from last year, they could reach the play-offs but otherwise look like a safe mid-table bet.
Plymouth Argyle: Promoted quite comfortably last season under Derek Adams who has done a good job since coming in as manager two seasons ago. Plymouth look to be a club of potential given their location, stadium and positive talk of the Chairman, so will be looking to establish themselves at this level. They’ve brought in eight players during pre-season so far, with all looking solid if unspectacular, and though they could push for top-six if continuing their progress, a safe mid-table finish that can be built upon looks a more likely option.
Rotherham: Relegated from the Championship and looking doomed from a long-way out, The Millers will surely be looking for a bit of stability this season with outside hopes of challenging the play-offs. Thirteen players have departed since last season and seven come in, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative with the squad not looking to be particularly worse off now. They look like they will lack goals to push for promotion but could push the top ten if relegation hasn’t scarred them.
Scunthorpe United: Pushed for automatic promotion for a long-way last season and were a little unlucky to miss out having finished third. The league does look a little weaker this season, so repeating last season wouldn’t be impossible, but they did overachieve so might have to set their sights a little lower. The squad doesn’t look any stronger than last year, so a slight fall back in performance might be a more realistic expectation.
Walsall: A perhaps disappointing season in 16/17 given their push for promotion the previous season, however, that was a massive overachievement and they were always going to struggle to back that up. There doesn’t look to have been major changes to the squad, with the departure of Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge to Cardiff and Mark Gillespie coming in as replacement from Carlisle perhaps the biggest change. Goals seemed to be a problem last year, with their total of 51 looking low and leading to 16 games drawn. If they can convert some of those draws into wins they can easily push for the top-half, but they’ll need the likes of Simeon Jackson to be more prolific in the season ahead.
In a Relegation Fight:
Blackpool: Most will have sympathy for the fans given the fall from grace over recent years but little for the club given the ownership. Gary Bowyer has done a brilliant job to get them promoted but it’s hard to see them continuing upwards given the way they are run. They’ll struggle unless they can miraculously find some of the missing premier league riches.
Bury: struggled last season but managed to battle out of relegation after Lee Clark took over. A position out of the bottom four will be the aim, hopefully without the late season worry attached. The loss of James Vaughan and the goals he brought could be a concern, but they have signed Jermaine Beckford and Nicky Ajose so shouldn’t lack goals and could have money to spend from that sale if they need to get out of trouble.
Gillingham: Struggled last season and the sacking of Justin Edinburgh looked a little rash given the good job he’d done up to that point. Ady Pennock has been given the job on a full-time basis with Peter Taylor in as Director of Football, but the new set-up doesn’t look like it will be much help with The Gills looking like solid relegation candidates. The squad looks considerably weaker this year and with a novice manager they’ll do well to finish better than bottom six.
Oldham Athletic: Another side who struggled for large parts of last season, they pulled clear of trouble after the return of club hero John Sheridan as manager. He picked up 9 wins in 22 games, which for a side of The Latics’ size is pretty impressive but hard to imagine them repeating over the course of a whole season. They will be better prepared for this season and have a solid manager in charge, however, as a club of their size a struggle is always likely to be on the cards.
Rochdale: Keith Hill has done a tremendous job at Rochdale and had them higher than could reasonably be expected for long parts of last season. Given the size of the club, just staying in the division will be an achievement any season, however, they have lost players in the close season and could struggle to repeat the form of last season. Hill could work heroics again but a bottom half finish might be more realistic.
Shrewsbury Town: Only just avoided relegation last season after Paul Hurst replaced Mickey Mellon as manager, but an 18th place finish can be taken as a positive having been bottom when he first came in. They have made quite a few changes to the squad during pre-season, with nine leaving and eleven coming in, with the loan market used to bring in a number of younger players from bigger clubs. They will be in the bottom half again but the hope will be that with a stronger start and more goals in the squad, they can make life a little easier for themselves.
As we’ve said, the league doesn’t look quite as strong as last season with the relegated sides from The Championship looking a level below the likes of Sheffield United and Bolton, but that’s not to say a team can’t step-up. Blackburn are the current bookies favourites and it’s not hard to see why given their size, stature and history, but I don’t believe that the odds reflect their actual chances and currently it looks a bad bet. Rovers have been in a downward spiral for some time and the squad looks weak at the moment, so it will be tough for them to suddenly start winning games in a division where they will be a big scalp. The 4/1 on offer in places is not a bet I will be making.
A more likely option to win the title would be WIGAN ATHLETIC. Last season was a big disappointment, there is no getting away from that, but poor decisions were made throughout the season and it can be argued that they did not prepare properly for the step-up to The Championship. However, they have retained most of the squad, brought in a very promising manager and have a strike force who could make hay in this division if getting the right service, so the 8/1 looks like good value.
I could easily see the likes of Doncaster or Portsmouth pushing on again following promotion but would be better bets for the play-offs, and Bradford must be taken seriously after so many near misses. Whilst at the other end of the table, Gillingham look in serious danger having a weakened squad and novice manager, Blackpool will struggle if continuing to cut corners and the usual suspects of Oldham and Shrewsbury are likely to struggle.
Wigan Athletic to Win League One @ 8/1 (Bet365)
Gillingham to be Relegated @ 7/4 (Boylesports)